Tag

storytelling

international relations
Central America, Peace

Why I Don’t Care about International Relations

[Our] accomplishments do not make the Western paradigm exceptional or suggest in any way that it has or ought to have a monopoly on the path to the future. — Wade Davis, Wayfinders

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

After a challenging three weeks in an International Relations course, I realized something…

Wait. Let me rewind first. Three wekes ago, I wrote:

Anthropologist Wade Davis—and particularly his book on indigenous systems, quoted above—has left a deep impression on me in the past year.

He expresses, with compelling eloquence and abundant case studies, my own feelings about our modern status quo. In these first few weeks at UPeace, I have seen the Western paradigm for peacebuilding and conflict resolution repeatedly touted in assigned readings as the apex of human thought, with few voices raised in opposition. (Makau Mutua comes to mind.)

While traveling over the last three years, I have encountered countless well-intentioned people doing far less good than they had hoped.

I believe it comes down to arrogance.

The problem is that we think we know everything. We think our truth is the only truth—that our reality is Reality. We are self-centered enough to believe human development is linear (and concentrated in the “West”) and that anything that came before, or from outside, is irrelevant to our future as a species.

This narcissism holds repercussions far wider than the field of peace and conflict studies. It impacts economic systems, food production, development, immigration policy, and so much more. Even worse, it closes our minds to all the wisdom available to us within our own history, and it stunts our capacity for creative and critical thought.

Human innovation is limitless, but only if we are humble enough to apply it to the flaws in our own paradigm.

As a storyteller, I am most interested in the role individuals play—as agents of change, or as champions of a flawed system. It is individual arrogance that calls America the “Greatest Country on Earth” and believes it devoutly. It is individual arrogance that can watch a system of production far outpace the earth’s capacity for regeneration and call that progress. And it is human arrogance that promotes the universalization of broken structures in the name of peace, employing many kinds of violence to achieve it. I believe real progress will come from empowering individuals to think critically and tell new stories about peace.

This is why I’m drawn to movements like social permaculture, rewilding, and experiential learning. These proceed with humility and open minds, don’t assume they have all the answers, and look beyond a human-centered, modern Western paradigm for solutions.

I do not believe there is anything idealistic about such an approach; given the circumstances, it might be the most pragmatic yet.

international relations

You see, I wrote the above words from the perspective of a writer, a student of anthropology, and a poet with an enduring interest in indigenous wisdom. The readings in my recent course, on the other hand, offered answers mostly rooted in the rigid and ethnocentric tradition of International Relations.

In our final assignment, we were asked to, “Cite the theoretical frameworks and readings that have most influenced your thinking.”

Instead, I decided to be honest—and not to simply put words on the page for the sake of a grade.

I had to admit that those theories and readings had not influenced my thinking—not in a meaningful way.

They made me question the utility of any political system at all. They made me seriously consider becoming an anarchist. And they have made me wonder if perhaps my incorrigible optimism is not so well-founded.

With the utmost respect to the field of International Relations and those dedicated to it, I am not at the University for Peace to learn about Neorealists and Neoliberals.

I do not care about great powers, nor small ones.

I do not care if China will be the next hegemon, not really.

I do not care if my worldview would be classified as “Cosmopolitan” or “Neorealist.”

I believe in the potential for transformation at the micro level, and I direct all of my efforts in my work—in writing, facilitating, editing, and learning—toward that end. I believe that the actions and choices of individuals and communities have an increasingly global impact.

This impact does not care what experts on civil society say about it. This impact will go on impacting regardless of what I say about it.

I believe in the exceptional power of media to inspire, accelerate, and sustain that transformation. International Relations speaks of hybrid warfare. Perhaps we could also speak of hybrid media: Individual “influencers” with audiences numbering in the millions. Online forums that subvert the status quo and utilize new blockchain technology to circumvent established channels of communication (and power) entirely. Anonymous “actors” who sway the tide of public opinion.

A single policy change may touch millions of lives (for better or worse), but so can a single viral article.

So, what do we do with that power? I am refining my answer to that question day by day. This new media is a masterless force, and I hope I can have a tiny, tiny role in directing its course—by adding my own voice to the multitudes and advocating for tolerance, understanding, equality, love, and curiosity, and by supporting individuals to find their voices and harness their experience for positive change.

The theories and paradigms I have studied so far paint an excellently accurate picture of the “world as it is,” but I am more interested in the “world as it could be.”

It is critical that we see things as they are if we wish to shape them to a vision of how they could be—absolutely. Frameworks and theories are useful tools for organizing practice, innovating solutions. Yet, as Einstein (or, it may have been Mark Twain) famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

From where I sit, even new theories look suspiciously similar to old ones. Human-centric. Stubbornly rooted in a Western paradigm. Of limited relevance to the average human being.

The extraordinary young entrepreneurs I met in South Africa, in Kenya, in Zanzibar do not need our theories. Are they not already doing more than any of us to promote peace in their communities? The writers I have worked with for years, supporting them to share stories of trauma, of sexual abuse, of mental disorder, may or may not agree with Kant’s theories on peace, but they are practicing peace—and inspiring others to do the same.

The yoga students in my classes do not need theories of transformation to transform.

The lesson is in the practice.

None of this is to discount the value of large-scale institutions, nor the power of structural change. Indeed, transformation must occur at all levels—for instance, nations signing onto the Paris Agreement; big business investing in corporate responsibility; entrepreneurs pursuing eco-restorative initiatives and non-traditional models of growth; and individuals committing to drastic changes in lifestyle.

But while the knowledge I have gained in the past three weeks is undoubtedly valuable as such, my work is not there at the level of state actors and UN resolutions.

My work is not theoretical—or, I do not want it to be.

I find it impossible to understand how my actions, here at the most micro of levels, have any bearing on these expansive theories.

And that’s okay.

There are seven billion of us here on the planet, and more on the way. There is no shortage of shoes to fill.


Adapted from a (perhaps overly honest) final reflection paper for my recent course at UPEACE.

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Adventure, Poetry & Fiction

The Girl Who was Afraid of Everything—Fiction

The Girl Who Was Afraid of Everything.

(A break from the usual—story time!)

***

Once there was a girl who was afraid of everything.

She lived on a tropical island of fearsome forests surrounded by cavernous seas. All the other islanders lived for adventure, it seemed, but not her.

She watched the towering ocean waves rolling toward her, and gasped at the audacity of the swimmers who danced in the roar of the surf, bodies like slippery eels.

Hugging her knees at a safe distance on the beach, the girl said to herself, “I could never do that.”

As the children of the island dove, jumped, and spun into a thundering waterfall, the girl dipped her toes in the pool below and shivered with fright.

“I could never do that,” she thought again.

She hovered at the edge of the forest that bordered the village and peered through the trees. The hunters chased great beasts on foot, leaping tree roots and serpents with ease and clutching arrows in their teeth.

The girl sucked in her breath at the sight and shook her head with finality as she whispered, “I could never do that.”

And so the days turned into months turned into years, and the girl became a young woman. Still she was afraid of everything. The other young men and women of the island made fun of her, and she withdrew ever deeper into her fearful heart.

One day, all the young people of the village ran off to play in the waves. A storm was brewing, and each wanted to prove their mettle. Only the girl stayed behind. She sat on a rock, drawing patterns in the dust, and an old, old woman came to sit beside her.

“What’s wrong?” asked the old woman.

“Everyone has gone to play in the waves, and I am all alone,” said the young woman.

“Why don’t you go with them then?”

“Oh, I could never do that.”

“Do you want to?”

“I… I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

And indeed, she never had, so fixed she had been in her certainty that it was impossible.

“Well,” said the old woman, “perhaps you should ask the others how it is they manage to do what you believe you never could.”

And that is what the young woman did.

She went to the swimmers and asked, “Oh swimmers, tell me how you can be so brave to swim like slippery eels in such big waves. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister,” they said, “but we must swim.”

Next she went to the divers and asked, “Oh divers, please tell me how you can be so fearless to dive without hesitation into such a big waterfall. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister. But we must dive.”

Finally, the young woman went to the hunters and asked, “Oh warriors, please tell me how you can run after such big beasts. Are you not scared?”

They laughed. “Of course we are scared, little sister. But we must hunt.”

She had a lot to think about.

And so she sat on her rock at the edge of the village, and she thought. And thought. And thought. And thought. And this is what she decided:

“If the swimmers must swim, and the divers must dive, and the hunters must hunt, perhaps everyone has something they must do, which, when they find it, makes them brave. Perhaps I too have something I must do, and when I find it, I will not be afraid.”

Soon after, a terrible drought struck the island. The oldest of the villagers could not remember its equal. The fruit in the trees withered in the sun and fell like stones, and the crops in the gardens shriveled and disappeared like smoke. The river dried up to a trickle, and the waterfall ceased to thunder. The people began to starve.

Now, there is something I have not told you about this island.

While the islanders were daring and brave and courageous and fearless, while they could swim and dive and hunt with abandon, and though they were happy, they could not love. From the youngest boy to the oldest woman, it was, they believed, quite impossible. Legend had it that this love business was far more perilous than any wave, or rock, or beast.

But, the legend went on, one would be born amongst them who would be braver than all the rest, who would not be afraid of loving, and who would save their island from destruction when calamity struck.

The young woman who was afraid of everything (formerly the girl who was afraid of everything) watched her neighbors starving and the crops failing and the river drying up to a trickle. She watched these things, and she listened to the prophecy and the legends that issued from parched, ancient lips, and she retreated deep into her fearful heart. Deeper than she had ever gone.

And there, beneath the fear, she discovered something she had not expected. Something that was not fear. Something that moved and flowed and had no bottom.

As she touched this mysterious well at her core, it spilled over and fell onto the cracked earth. She opened her eyes and looked at the blurred scene before her.

And… she… loved.

She loved the village, and the villagers. She loved the jungle, and the beasts. She loved the river and the waterfall, the ocean and the beach. She loved the island, the earth, the sky…

… and so the prophecy came to pass.

With her love, the woman ended the drought. The skies opened, the rains came, and the island prospered for a long, long time.

And she never stopped loving, the woman who was afraid of everything except that most perilous of nature’s inventions. She grew old, and still she loved.

Whenever a young, fearful villager asked her how she could be so brave as to love, when all around her believed it to be impossible, and was she not scared (and they asked her this often), the woman who loved laughed and laughed.

“Of course I am scared,” she would answer, “but I must love.”

***

Previously published on Rebelle Society.

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teaching, facilitating
Africa, Culture

How I’m Overcoming the Tension of Teaching Storytelling in Africa

In my first workshop meeting, I share a TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and she discusses how throughout history those in power—especially colonialists—have dispossessed others by choosing how to tell their stories.

I am a young, white, American woman facilitating a workshop in Cape Town, South Africa sponsored (I think) by the U.S. embassy.

The title of this workshop? Storytelling for Social Justice.

As my “students” introduce themselves at our first of five meetings, they speak with courageous vulnerability about identity, hope, passion, and overcoming adversities I can scarcely imagine—genocide, violence, disease, loss.

They are mostly African, mostly POC, and mostly ten years older than me.

Sitting at the table with these eight extraordinary individuals in a bland classroom in the “American Corner” of the Central Library, I facilitate a discussion about “finding our authentic voice.”

Am I following in the well-worn tracks of those colonialists and neo-colonialists who sought to dictate how the stories of the African continent should be told?

Am I, too, somehow disempowering my students by seeking to facilitate their storytelling? Is “facilitate” just a nice word for “control”?

Damn, I sure hope not.

But I also hope that my race, age, and nationality do not disqualify me from sharing what I know with this exceptional group of human beings. They have honored me with their trust, their time, and their attention—and I feel humbled and motivated in equal measure. I want to support them in telling their stories, and I want to do it in the right way. So, as I do, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the “right way” would be.

I’ve never quite faced a situation like this before. I’ve taught dance and yoga, but writing is another level. When we talk about telling stories—our stories—we step into sensitive territory.

For too long academia has arrogantly claimed ownership of the world’s stories. For too long,  media and politics have propagated incomplete stories, visiting a kind of violence on their subjects by flattening them into one dimension. For too long, those who possess privilege and power have thought to police the self-expression—the stories—of those who have less.

And on and on and on…yes, storytelling is sensitive territory.

But, I’m still facilitating the workshop. This is how I’m moving past these stumbling blocks:

1. I choose the word “facilitate” over “teach.”

I would not presume to teach a group of people older, wiser, and more seasoned than me. I prefer to understand my role as that of facilitator, enabling my workshop participants to learn from one another and from my experience. (I also expect to learn just as much from them as they do from me!)

2. To that end, I focus on the knowledge I do have to share, which may be of value.

Introducing this workshop, I told my group that I came to them primarily as an editor who has worked on thousands of articles and several full-length books. I also come to them as a writer who has published for years on many online platforms. I believe the knowledge I have gathered from that work could benefit anyone wishing to improve their writing skills.

3. I accept the tension.

I think there is an inherent tension to my position. There are layers of nuance whenever a person steps into a teaching role, travels in foreign countries, or enters any cultural context other than their own—and I’m doing all three. That’s okay. I hope that by keeping those nuances in mind I will manage to avoid any particularly inappropriate gaffes.

 

***

 

Photo Credit: Zen Monkey Photography

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Why I Don’t Care about International Relations
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